First-time visitors to New York take with them ideas of what they will find there. There are the well-known landmarks, of course, but many of the areas of the city will have some associations for the newcomer from virtue of movie, TV, song or book. Manhattan, Harlem, Greenwich Village all have an immediate picture in the mind - even Queens, if you watched Cagney and Lacey. Brooklyn, however, at least to the British visitor, doesn’t carry so many prior expectations of what to expect. There’s awareness of the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps the Brooklyn Dodgers, some notion of the Brooklyn accent based on My Cousin Vinnie or The Goodfellas. There are plenty of songs about the place-from Neil Diamond to the Beastie Boys to Mos Def to Salem al Fakir- but somehow a clear picture seems illusory before you actually see it for yourself
The song here, In Brooklyn by Al Stewart, is a perspective very much from British eyes and is also something now of a period piece in the way of Sunny Goodge Street - it came out in 1969 and you can almost smell the patchouli. Al Stewart is perhaps best known for his hit Year of the Cat but at the time of this song he was on the same club/college circuit as Roy Harper, with a style not unlike Donovan’s. His work was not to everyone’s taste and could range from the somewhat twee to the slightly bombastic, with later songs tackling Nostradamus, the French Revolution and the German invasion of Russia in WW2. His earlier albums were more introspective, foreshadowing the singer-songwriter beloved of bed-sitter land in the early seventies. In Brooklyn comes from his second album, Love Chronicles, on which he was backed by Jimmy Page and most of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, in a jangly folk-rock style and features a number of personal and contemplative stories in a confessional song manner.
The title song, Love Chronicles, an 18 minute auto-biographical epic chronicling every sexual crush and encounter from ‘ Stephanie in the kindergarten arithmetic class’ onwards, gained some notoriety from supposedly being the first mainstream record to use the f-word (though Dylan’s Rain Day Women 12 &35 reputedly contains it if you listen hard enough) and then print it on the record cover. Hearing some of the lyrics now does, unfortunately, bring to mind Tony Blair’s reminiscences of him and Cherie in his Memoirs. However, it was quite brave. Singing his accounts of being a successful Lothario across Europe and America - along with a song called You Should Have Listened to Al- round the provincial college circuit was, frankly, asking for a punch on the nose.
Where Stewart excelled was in detailing a descriptive story in 3 or 4 minutes and In Brooklyn - the account of an encounter with a girl from Pittsburgh during his first trip to New York- is such a song. It paints a picture that was very much of its time at the tail end of the sixties. The girl with the harmonicas was probably called Moon Child, had long hair and a copy of the I-Ching and was a bit loopy. Though living in Brooklyn, New York to her was between Fourth Street and Nine (Greenwich Village) The whole feel of it is reminiscent of Hair or Stoned Soul Picnic and it also reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s America for some reason. Maybe it is because characters in both songs started their journey in Pittsburgh; or maybe it is that the relationships in both songs seemed doomed and are set against an era coming to an end. (As a bit of trivia here, Al Stewart shared lodgings with Paul Simon when he was in England in the mid-sixties).
What gives the description of Brooklyn-with the smell of the hamburger stand in the rain, the pawnbrokers and the winos begging money - an added dimension here is the vocal delivery. Al Stewart was actually born in Scotland before moving to the English south coast but on In Brooklyn he sounds like Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, impeccably English-‘mine was cold anyway and just grand’ - and an outsider looking in, which oddly enough makes it all the more accessible and believable. With that accent, the long hair and the afghan coat, no wonder he turned the head of a wannabe hippy from Pittsburgh.
I, too, got to Brooklyn on my first trip to New York, on the Brooklyn loop of the bus tour and some 40 years behind Al Stewart. It wasn’t enough yet to write a little narrative like this song but I did get to see the Brooklyn Bridge and to stand looking at the panorama of the lights illuminating the city against the night sky. And I was definitely in Brooklyn.
Link to song